An Ending and a Beginning

Its been a strange year. People are wandering around Europe, weary and desperate, in a way previously unseen. Democracy was served here in the form of Britain voting to leave the European Union, and sadly, the two events are linked.

The PM fell on his sword for asking the Brexit question and the UK got its second female prime minster. Mrs May reminds me of an austere, yet reliable head teacher. Let us hope she can keep the class in order while overseeing the school.

Closer to home, I have recently experienced bereavement. I found this intensely personal, yet commonplace experience, unlike anything else. Emotions come and go; sometimes they bubble up … It has only been weeks, so I am still adjusting.

It struck me recently that myself and others have likened the process of grief to other experiences of loss, such as moving from country to country. There are some similarities in the nature of the cycle; the ebb and flow of shock, denial and with any luck, acceptance. The difference of losing someone you love is the knowledge they are gone forever. If only you could book a flight to go and see them occasionally or even just once more … It’s a shock to find you have no choice, they are out of reach and the timing and nature of their departure was beyond your control.

In the case of an elderly parent, like mine, you may bring some influence to bare on their final days, endeavouring to give them as good an ‘ending’ as possible. I am thankful to have had that opportunity to be there, and I hope, help a little. I found death profound, much like birth it involves a breath; the first or the last.

Within the nougat of life there have been blessings along with the challenges; some things have gone as hoped. A highlight was a restorative break in Sivota, Greece. A holiday was never more welcome, and the breath taking view from the optimistically named ‘retreat’ (think minestrone of kids yelping in pool) provided a fine place to reflect and a chance to become institutionalised, for all the best reasons.Sivota, Greece copy.jpg

At the beginning of 2016, I decided to write a novel. The characters, plot line and themes had been swirling in my head for more than a year. Building work on my house had been the excuse for not getting started. In January, I went on a Guardian Master Class course, run by author, Jill Dawson and put procrastination to one side. A Saturday spent with other souls compelled to write, was the catalyst I needed to open my PC and type Chapter 1.

This month I have completed a first draft of the manuscript. Tada! Writing a novel; the act of telling a story, has been utterly absorbing and at times, a welcome diversion. There is a need for discipline and much time sacrificed (obviously) but I’ve found living with my characters; directing their lives – watching them develop as they struggle, discover secrets, fall in love, hear them speak and so on, has been fun.

Fingers are crossed for modest success, though I’m not quite ready to launch my novel at the world yet. Apparently Jeffrey Archer goes through his manuscript fourteen times before he sends it to his agent. Why fourteen? I’m not sure. But I’ve got the message …

All of the above has kept me distracted from writing my blog, although I have still enjoyed reading other people’s! Is it a cliché to say, I haven’t been in the right place? Sometimes there is a limit to how many areas we can direct our energies; work, kids, husbands, elderly relatives – did I mention the cats … I imagine you have your own list.

Am I trying to justify my absence from here? Probably …

I do hope this finds you well.

A Meaningful Life

Spring! Just the word makes me feel optimistic. Lighter mornings and everywhere the green of new growth. Daffodil trumpets standing proud above white snowdrops, lavender crocuses and pastel primroses. Driving around the locale my eyes are drawn to blooms peeping through verges, each one gives a little lift.

Strolling down a country lane in Pembrokeshire recently, I spotted the wild primroses in the photograph, growing in waves like coloured rugs thrown over the banks and hedges, I love the fact that no one planted them, they are just there delicate and optimistic.

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All living things have a cycle, don’t they? A beginning, a middle and an end or put another way death, decay and renewal. It’s omnipresence is one of the few certainties in life, the knowledge we will all have an ending one day, so little wonder we appreciate signs of renewal, perhaps it gives us hope?

Whilst on the sojourn in Pembrokeshire I was reminded of the finality of death over a family lunch in the The Jolly Sailor pub. Feasting on slow cooked Welsh Lamb and roast potatoes, we marvelled at the breath-taking view of the Claddau Bridge, its span stretching across the high blue sky above us. Although very much a man made structure, we soon learned its ‘beginning’ was a rather tragic one.

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My father-in-law David was a policeman in Pembrokeshire in the 1970s when the bridge was under construction. The county of Pembrokeshire had previously been divided into two halves, a small car ferry being the only mode of crossing the estuary.

On 2nd June 1970 David was having an unremarkable day patrolling around Haverfordwest when an urgent call came through on the police radio. David and three other police officers were immediately dispatched to the town of Pembroke Dock at the southern side of the estuary.

Dashing to the scene, they arrived to find the partially built bridge, had all but collapsed. The sections of the structure were still attached, but had partially fallen, tipping forwards on to the muddy bank of the estuary far below. The black and white images I’ve seen remind me of the shape of a giraffe’s neck reaching forward as if to take a drink from the river.

Claddau Bridge Collapse

Recalling the traumatic events of forty-five years ago, my father-in-law’s face reflects the strain of that day as he tells of the ambulances arriving to ferry the injured and dead to the County Hospital. He doesn’t go into detail.

The reason for the disaster? A cantilever being used to place one of the 150 ton steel box girders into position had collapsed. Later the cause would also be attributed to inadequacies in the design of a pier support and operational failures. Eventually a new British Standard for bridge building would be developed as a result.

That Claddau was the last major bridge construction disaster in the UK, will be of small comfort to those directly affected by the tragedy. Four workers died, their ‘middle’ was interrupted prematurely and without preparation, a ‘good ending’ denied. Five were seriously injured.

Dying is inevitable, many feel its the how and why we get there that is more worrisome … If our parents are lucky enough to grow old we are aware of the twilight phase of life and however long he or she is ‘good for their age’, eventually there will be the messy part at the end, hopefully brief. Such thoughts cause most of us to shrug our shoulders, and dismiss the thought. We cross our fingers and hope for a mercifully swift departure.

So the prospect of our own death is always there in the background, pushing us on to do what? Live well though the spring, summer and autumn, even the winter of our lives; fuelling the desire to grow and flourish perhaps, to leave in our wake something of value, our offspring or some other legacy.

Many of us are busy doing everyday things, ploughing our own particular furrow. Even unconsciously, making meaning of our lives is usually important to us. Commenting on existential therapy and the inner conflict which confronting death may cause, Spinelli says:

“Meaning … is implicit in our experience of reality, we cannot tolerate meaningless.” (1989, 7)

Perhaps it is worth taking a few moments then to consider what influence we might have in the world. If you imagine writing your own eulogy for example, what would you like it to say?

Few of us will have helped construct a spectacular bridge or some other important landmark, but we all do something every day that makes an impression on others. And whatever inspires you may also inspire future generations. I hope at the very least my children will appreciate wild flowers growing in the hedgerows …

Spinelli, E, The Interpreted World, Sage, London, 1989